The Socratic Method

Questioning Our Assumptions About Design

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    What is it About Music and Architecture?

    Sean Joyner
    Aug 26, '17 7:21 PM EST

    What is it about music and architecture that leaves us all so fascinated? Is there really a legitimate relationship? How might we begin to think about the two ideas in a cohesive way? It’s one of those dichotomies that always comes up and sometimes the relationship seems a bit contrived. No doubt, many respected architects have talked about the relationship: Vitruvius, Libeskind, Xenakis. But I want to think about these two things in a different way than these three, I’m certainly not the first one to tackle the question in this way but I don’t see it proposed a lot.

    Most discussions about music and architecture end with some sort of physical manifestation that was inspired by the music. I find that quite interesting. When I think of music I think of something extremely experiential as I do with architecture but not in a formal or environmental way. Music does literally alter our environments through vibrations, and those vibrations can give us a diverse range of feelings. But that environmental manipulation is not a physical object-oriented kind of thing, it’s more perceptible. Music has an extremely distinct experiential quality that I think can be thought of in conjunction with a spatial experience.

    Traveling Through Time

    Step back for a second and think of the concepts of movement and of time. Those two things together address a very interesting idea about how we engage with the world around us. Our active engagement with our environment comes primarily from our movement through it, our conscious interaction. (When we are sleeping our surroundings contribute to the quality of that sleep but we are not actively and consciously engaged with it). As we move throughout space time passes. With this comes a deeper topic of the philosophy of time, and more specifically the idea of duration. The French philosopher Henri Bergson proposed this idea in his dissertation, Time and Free Will, where he posits that our phenomenological engagement with reality operates in a perpetual flux: time unfolds as we move forwards through it. The past, present, and future do not all exist at the same time. For those who aren't familiar with philosophies of time this probably seems obvious, you can't go back in time and you can't know the future. But there are many powerful (and scientific) arguments that conclude to the contrary.

    The reason I bring up duration is because (in the context of this article) I'm only interested in how we experience the world as individuals rather than with a larger more empirical truth about reality. When we physically move through architecture we are actively engaged with it, we can't be in two spaces at one time and can only experience different aspects of an environment if we pass through them. Regardless of the formal complexity, historical relevance, or conceptual rigor of a building its essence can't be captured if we don't interact with it. Our relationship to music is exactly the same.

    The Glue of Our Perceptions

    Think of duration as the glue that binds music and architecture together. We can't hear an entire composition all in the same moment, we must actively listen, experiencing the different sections of a tune one at a time, it is a journey through time and it unfolds before us. Looking at song structure and relating it to physical structure is an interesting exploration. I don’t mean that we would compare a verse and a chorus to a beam or a column but rather the transitional aspects of physical structure: a doorway, a curtain, any type of threshold that introduces a new type of a experience is, in my opinion, directly relatable to the transitional changes in music. In contemporary song structure we might see the tune begin with one or two verses followed by a pre-chorus and then the chorus, after which there will usually be another verse, a bridge, and then a chorus or outro to conclude the song. Each of those sections has its own distinct qualities: the harmony is different, the lyrics change, but it’s all still the same song. It’s the same thing in a building, there are different rooms and spaces with unique uses and material characteristics, but all a part of the same architecture.

    So when I think of music and architecture I don’t think of one influencing an outcome of the other but rather what I can learn from one and how I might incorporate it into my thinking about the other. As a musician I experience music in a very deep way, subtle things in a song that some people might not pay attention to have a significant impact on me, when I hear, for example, a composition move from a minor sound to something more major, I physically feel that change in my body. The transitions and the qualities of each section is what often makes music so experiential. As a designer I also feel that I experience space in a deeper way than everyone else. I respond to subtle changes and am sensitive to spatial characteristics in ways that most people would not understand. When I move through a space it’s a constant journey of discovery, even if it’s a place that I am familiar with my movement through it is new every time. (How many times have you listened to the same song?)

    The Musical Spatial Relationship

    Let’s end with the example I just gave of a song moving from a minor sound to a major sound and see how that might allow us to think about space. To keep it simple let’s think of the minor sound as something that feels sad, dark, or melancholy, it doesn’t need to be a negative feeling it’s just associated with something more “blue” or “grey” (gloomy days for example aren’t negative but just described in a certain way). If a song begins with this minor characteristic the composition will progress forward and each section will have a clear beginning and end. The chord changes will shape each section giving it it’s own identity. A major sound is pretty much the opposite of minor, it feels more happy, bright, or joyful. When the transition from minor to major takes place in a song it is something we all notice, it may be subconsciously or consciously but regardless, we perceive that change occur. So what if I asked you to describe how one might feel emerging from a dark cave into a large sunny grassland? I don’t know about you but for me the cave is a minor sound and that grassland is major.


    Please share your thoughts in the comments. Do you ever think about this relationship? Perhaps you have some recommended readings for me. This is a way for me to explore what I am thinking about. These are just my thoughts, I’d love to hear yours too! Thanks for reading!


    • Sean Joyner's comment has been hidden

      Wow! Thank you Christopher. I really appreciate all of the feedback and direction of what I can look at further. I completely identify with all of your points. Perhaps after I check some of this stuff out I'll connect with you again. Thanks for reading!

      Aug 27, 17 4:08 pm  · 
      Mohanty Sangita

      True -  Sometimes Architecture & Music seem to be woven as one in the Rhythm and Harmony of the volumetric  compositions and  through the play of light. As rightly stated by you - it is immersive and evolved architects can perceive those experiential moments. 

      Sep 18, 20 11:30 am  · 

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This blog explores ideas about design and how it relates to our lives through research and critical thinking. As the title suggests this will be a platform to present thought provoking ideas intended for further discussion.

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